Recently, a gas leak from the LG Polymers plant in Vishakhapatnam brought back the horrors of the Bhopal gas tragedy that took place back in 1984. The residents of habitations near the plant, who came in contact with the styrene vapor, reported a loss of lives in the attempt of escaping. Styrene, a highly toxic chemical, was being used for the production of polystyrene products and was being stored in heavy amounts in tanks across the plant. The directions regarding the handling and storage of such gases have been included in The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989. Such incidents are not new to us, we are aware of the Bhopal Gas Leak, the Oleum Gas leak, the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster, and the after-effects it has had on the society, then Why haven't the concerned industries, in this case, cautiously handled the chemical even after being aware of the after-effects it can have on the society? Such highly hazardous substances are a result of the rapid industrial revolution that has taken place in the past centuries, so has the law evolved accordingly in order to provide the citizens affected with a proper compensation in such cases?
Law can not remain static. It has to keep changing in order to keep pace with the growing society. A highly developing industrial society demands for changes in the old norms which would adequately fulfill the new situation. Industrial development has to lead us into being a fearless community, dealing with highly hazardous substances on a daily basis, and working with these substances demand an efficient workforce and excess caution while operation. The hazardous substances must be maneuvered keeping in mind the additional safeguards, wherein any negligence can lead to long term damages including loss of human lives. Regarding the industrial change, the Rule of Absolute Liability was laid down by the Supreme Court of India in MC Mehta Vs Union Of India[1987 SCR (1) 819]. This rule was a development in the Rule of Strict Liability that was laid down in Rylands Vs. Fletcher [1868 LR3 (HL) 330] by the House of Lord. The rule of strict liability can be synopsized in the points below:
1. There must be a dangerous thing brought upon one's land and the use of land must be non-natural.
2. The thing must escape.
3. The thing must cause harm.
Apart from these essentials, some defenses were provided in this case including Consent of the plaintiff, Act of God (Vis Major), Act of the third party, and where the plaintiff himself is the wrongdoer.
The Rule of Absolute Liability, which has a wider scope when compared to strict liability, was given by Justice PN Bhagwati in M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India [1987 SCR (1) 819]. The rule of absolute liability does not provide the defendant with any exceptions, i.e. if a person keeps a highly hazardous substance on his land and it escapes and causes harm to others, he will be absolutely liable for the damage it causes after its escape. The same rule was applied in Union Carbide Vs Union of India popularly known as the Bhopal gas leak incident, where the leak of Methyl isocyanate lead to the deaths of many along with fatal and non-fatal injuries. Public Liability Insurance was introduced in 1991 for the purpose of providing immediate
compensation to the persons affected by any accident caused by hazardous substances.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) took Suo Moto cognizance in the case of the Vishakhapatnam leak and constituted a five-member committee to examine the matter. The committee found out that the self polymerization of styrene chemicals lead to the incident. The styrene chemical needs to be circulated to keep its temperature under control, but due to a halt on the industrial operations due to a nationwide lockdown, the same could not be carried out. Apart from that, the tank from which the leak happened was an old one and there was no apparatus to record the change in temperature. The maintenance personnel in-charge of the storage tanks were negligent and said to have not refrigerated the tank from a day before the incident. The reports also mentioned that the industry was running without environment clearance. The NGT held that the LG Polymers were liable and imposed a fined Rs 50 Crores under the rule of absolute liability. The immediate monetary compensation was a result of the Rule of Absolute liability given by the Supreme Court of India.
The findings of the committee are clear evidence of negligence on part of the superior officials of the industry and the competent government authorities. An industry regulating such highly hazardous substances must follow safety protocols and ensure that the machinery is up-to-the-date. The recruitment of experienced and highly trained employees must be ensured. Extra caution must be maintained on a personal level to prevent such incidents. The LG polymer was present in a moderately populated region with around 40,000 people residing in a 3 km radius of it. The competent authorities issuing environmental clearance must work efficiently and avoid clearances to industrial plans with habitations near it. The agriculture-dependent population was instructed not to use the groundwater, for the time being, thus putting their livelihood at stake. While issuing guidelines of a lockdown like this, concerned industries dealing with hazardous substances must be given some sort of relaxation, as it demands a continuous watch. Considering basic precautionary measures can prevent damage, such as disastrous, which may affect generations.
This highly evolving modern world brings with itself changes that have proved to be dangerous if not dealt properly. Developing India needs to strengthen its hold in matters relating to public safety for assurance of a better future. The rule of absolute liability led to speedy disposal of the matter thus saving time of the people who got affected. The rule, thus, has been a bonus for the Indian courts while dealing with the cases of negligence involving highly hazardous substances.